Stats? Fitz just wants to win, make a difference

TEMPE, Ariz. — Larry Fitzgerald was asked if he’d be OK with the Cardinals adopting a running mentality on offense this season given their inexperience at quarterback and tackle.

“No. We’re a passing team, first and foremost. That’s how we butter our toast,” Fitzgerald said with the faintest of smiles ruining his poker face. “We’ll mix the run in a little bit to keep teams off balance.”

When Fitzgerald entered the NFL, there might have been more conviction behind those words. While Arizona’s iconic wide receiver was never guilty of the diva-like behaviors that afflict many star receivers, he admits his early approach shaded toward self-absorption.

“When I was young, I just worried about taking care of myself, taking care of my family and taking care of my numbers,” he said.

But the fleeting nature of NFL careers and quarterbacks — and even the daily struggle of mankind — has altered the nine-year pro’s perspective.

“As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to realize the rewards are much greater when you commit to a team or a group of guys or even a bunch of strangers,” he said.

Maybe that’s why Fitzgerald is approaching his club’s latest shortcomings with a stiff upper lip and a positive outward approach. Not only will the Cards open the season with former fifth-round draft pick John Skelton starting at quarterback, they’ll also sport two fresh and inexperienced faces at the offensive tackle positions: rookie right tackle Bobby Massie and journeyman left tackle D’Anthony Batiste.

It’s enough to make a Pro Bowl receiver cry, but Fitzgerald won’t ever utter those sentiments publicly — if he’s feeling them at all.

“I’m just happy it’s behind us and we don’t have to answer the question every day,” he said, specifically addressing the quarterback controversy. “Coach named John the starter. We’re going to follow his lead. It can shift our focus to what’s really important.”

What’s really important to Fitzgerald is winning. Not just games. Not just division titles. Fitzgerald wants a Super Bowl title. He got close four seasons ago when the Cardinals dropped a last-second heart-breaker to the Steelers, but he barely had time to savor that improbable playoff run before it was gone.

“It doesn’t seem like such a distant memory,” he said. “I never lose sight of what that felt like, what the journey was like, committing to a team that embarked on an incredible experience. I just want to recapture that.”

Fitzgerald could voice his displeasure with the current situation if he wanted. The Cardinals have neglected their offensive line for years, and their most recent quarterback decisions have turned sour. He wields enough power around this franchise to make things unpleasant, whether the coaches and management will admit it or not.

But making waves is not his style. He knows how shaky a young quarterback’s confidence can be, he knows these are the cards he’s been dealt, he’s certain nobody wants to hear a millionaire athlete complain and he’s certain Skelton understands how important it is to keep Fitzgerald’s incomparable talents involved in the offense.

“That was hammered into me as a rookie,” Skelton said with a wide smile. “I don’t need to learn that one.”

The more cynical members of the media wonder if this team-first outward approach is part of Fitzgerald’s calculated persona. They wonder if everything he does in front of the cameras or in third-world nations is carefully crafted for maximum marketing impact, to manage the sparkling Fitzgerald brand.

Even if that were the case, it would be difficult to find flaws in the body of evidence. Granted, Fitzgerald has a greater pulpit from which to preach, but that pulpit is always in use and almost always constructive.

“You always wonder about guys and what they will do with that platform and if they will help others with a quality of life,” coach Ken Whisenhunt said. “I don’t think there are many guys in the game that mean as much football-wise that also mean as much to the community or to other people like Larry does. He’s a tireless worker.”

Fitzgerald’s charitable work has earned just as much publicity as his on-field exploits. He was named the NFL Humanitarian of the Year by Pro Football Weekly this year.
But whether he’s distributing hearing aids in Uganda or digging ditches in Ethiopia, there’s still a desire for more perspective, more understanding, more connection, more impact.

“The reality is, when you’re in my position, you can affect a lot of people in a positive way, and I don’t think we even understand the full impact we have,” said Fitzgerald, who recalls how meeting pro athletes such as Kevin Garnett and Ken Griffey Jr. changed his outlook. “I hope I can do something of the same along the way, whether it’s encourage kids to play football, be a doctor or just to be better citizens.”

Fitzgerald admits to feeling more desperation for a Super Bowl title with each passing season. He just turned 29 on Aug. 31. That’s not old, not even by NFL standards, but when he looks around the locker room and sees just two of the same nameplates that were there in his first season (Adrian Wilson and Darnell Dockett), he realizes how quickly opportunities come and go.

“Every time I put my cleats on, that championship is going to be my driving force, but when it’s all said and done, I always say when I walk away or the game walks away from me, I’ll make sure I’ve done everything I possibly could,” he said. “That goes for what I do on the field and what I do off of it.”

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